A Decade of Caring

Looking back at 10 years of Fostering Success at CSU

by Joe Giordano

published Aug. 19, 2020

It’s been more than a decade since Greg King shared his story with Jody Donovan at Colorado State University.

As a child, King bounced around homes in the foster care system and briefly experienced homelessness. As an undergraduate at Western Illinois University, he said he would stowaway in his residence hall during academic breaks, and he even sent himself care packages to give the appearance that he fit the mold of a typical college student.

“I felt really left out, and I didn’t want anyone to know my background,” said King, who went on to earn his master’s degree at CSU.

Donovan, who now serves as assistant vice president for student affairs and dean of students, first heard King’s story for an assignment in her student affairs in higher education class.

“I remember my stomach had dropped, and I was on one hand profoundly sad that he had to navigate on his own,” Donovan said. “But I also remembering being incredibly proud of him for getting into a master’s degree program — just being in awe of Greg’s tenacity and persistence, and the sense of we’ve got to do better for these students.”

King’s story was part of a confluence of events that led to the creation of the Fostering Success Program at CSU, a donor-supported initiative that has helped thousands of students from foster care and independent backgrounds navigate college since its founding a decade ago.

Fostering Success at CSU is synonymous with providing care packages to students of independent backgrounds during move-in week and a few times during the semester. But the program, as its founders, current organizers and supporters say, is so much more.

It has become a national exemplar on how to provide resources, mentorship, networking and educational opportunities for students of independent backgrounds.

Looking back

Volunteers help to prepare move-in care packages in 2015 (left), and students visit the Fostering Success school supply pickup in 2017.

In the early years of Fostering Success, Donovan, who helped launch the program in 2010, can remember her Administration Building office being totally overwhelmed with mittens, socks, granola bars, pencils and other items for care packages.

“We were scrappy back then,” Donovan said with a laugh. “We were going to grocery stores saying, ‘Can you donate something?’ We were going all around. We’d go to athletics, ‘Do you have any leftover clothes or anything?’”

It was all to help students from independent backgrounds get started on the right foot at CSU.

Brittany Janes was another graduate student who played a key role in the launch of Fostering Success. Janes lived in several group homes and foster homes during her youth. In high school, she emancipated from foster care and lived on her own her senior year; afterward, she worked two jobs to support herself through college.

“Most foster youth don’t get a bachelor’s degree,” said Janes, who is an academic advisor at Broward College in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where she advises mostly low-income, first-generation STEM and nursing students. “It’s a very small percentage. Because the percentage is so low, it’s really an area where there needs to be more resources, support and guidance.”

According to Pew, foster youth in college are more likely to drop out before earning a degree, even compared with first-generation college students. Foster Care to Success, a national nonprofit dedicated to working solely with college-bound foster youth, said on its website that fewer than 10% of foster youth graduate from college.

Janes said in those early years of Fostering Success, they were looking to help the students by giving them support, whether it was through care packages or community building. Janes recalled student trips to the YMCA in Estes Park and a Denver Nuggets basketball game.

“We did things to build community so they felt engaged and were around people that understood their experiences,” she said. “All of it was to help them not feel alone, and that they had somebody to lean on.”

Both Janes and Donovan said it was a team effort in establishing Fostering Success, lauding the contributions of current and former CSU administrators such as Brett Anderson, Jennie Baran, Ginny Fanning, Siri Newman and LA Varela.

“I think of a group of committed people from across the university who gave their time, talents and hearts to make this happen,” Donovan said. “All of us came together because we cared.”

CSU establishes the FSP Working Group, starting a tradition with the first care packages sent to eight students with foster care backgrounds.

Fosering Success expands the definition of service beyond foster care to all students from independent backgrounds.

The Fostering Success Program begins awarding scholarships.

Fostering Success starts Family Dinners as a way to build connections and community.

Fostering success today

CSU student Barnabas Tsige poses for a photo with Andrea Fortney, senior coordinator for Fostering Success.

After graduating from high school in Longmont in 2017, Barnabas Tsige was really nervous about attending CSU.

“It dawned on me that, ‘Wow, like I’m going to school,” he said. “And a lot of students who have support systems have belief that they can just do it, instilled within them from their parents. I didn’t really have that.”

Born in Italy, Tsige, whose parents are from Ethiopia, said Fostering Success provided him with the resources and confidence to succeed in college.

Now entering his senior year as a political science major and legal studies minor, Tsige can still remember his Fostering Success care package in Braiden Hall, which included sheets, a pillow, a fan, a white board and a lamp, among other things.

Since joining the program, Tsige has become a Fostering Success mentor, having helped more than 20 students. While there wasn’t a mentorship program when he was a first-year student, Tsige said he prides himself on helping students build community.

Andrea Fortney, senior coordinator for Fostering Success, said there were about 230 active students in the program during the spring semester. Fortney, who joined the program in 2018, said she is amazed by the resiliency and the motivation of the students.

“It’s really the students themselves who are making an impact on the new students who come in,” Fortney said. “Having students like Barnabas and the mentors has been monumental to the success of the program.”

Tsige, who wants to focus on immigration or international law after graduation, said the care packages, mentoring, family dinners and events from Fostering Success have been critical in his time at CSU.

“I may not have the same resources as my peers,” he said, “but Fostering Success gave me some of them so that when I leave college, I feel confident enough in my abilities to be successful.”

Fosering Success hosts the first FSP Graduation Celebration, honoring each graduate with a quilt.

FSP enters a partnership with Educate Tomorrow, leading to the FSP Educate Tomorrow Mentoring Program with upper-class students helping first-year and new transfer independent students navigate CSU.

Fosering Success hires its first full-time staff member thanks to multiple generous donations.

Committed community volunteers continue supporting the care package tradition, from eight students receiving packages in 2010 to 114 students in 2019.

Supporting Fostering Success

Students at a CSU basketball game thanks to the generous support of a donor.

As students begin to move on campus, Fortney said the organization is leaving school supply care packages with about 100 Fostering Success students and move-in care packages for 33 new independent students.

Fortney said the care packages and the program itself would not be possible without the tremendous advocacy and support from the CSU community and beyond. She said the mentorship part of the program was funded last year by Educate Tomorrow, a nonprofit dedicated to foster youth.

Lisa Aiken-Jillson, a public speaker and financial wellness coach based out of Denver, is another advocate of Fostering Success. Aiken-Jillson said she gets goosebumps when she thinks about the students as their stories hit close to home.

Aiken-Jillson was placed in the foster care system at age 12 and was adopted at 14. When it came time to think about paying it forward, she said she did some Google searches and came across Fostering Success.

“I’ve looked at other colleges in the state to see if I wanted to leave some funds there,” she said, “and they just don’t have the structure and support system that CSU does. It’s an amazing program, and I think the impact it can have on keeping these students until they graduate is life-changing.”

In the decade since King shared his story, Fostering Success has changed the lives of countless students at CSU. King, himself, went on to get his Ph.D. from North Carolina State University and now works on policies for a nonprofit that will improve access to a college education.

Looking back on it all, he said he’s proud of CSU’s commitment to providing a welcoming environment to students of independent backgrounds and all of the people who have made the program possible.

“I’m proud that other students won’t have the same struggles that I had,” King said. Fostering Success “gives students a place to say, ‘I belong in college.’”

Learn more

Find out more about the Fostering Success Program at CSU and how it builds a sense of belonging and support among independent students to foster growth and success in college and beyond at fosteringsuccess.colostate.edu.